Over the last week I’ve had a number of conversations with clients, colleagues and friends about how to deal with online social media.
Some people are firm believers in the power of social networking and use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others very heavily, blurring personal and professional profiles and details quite freely. Others are scared to death and do not want to use these or – if they do – they are extremely careful, keep separate profiles, mostly watch and do not participate. Others are somewhere in between.
I probably belong to the first group. It is not that I do not value my privacy, on the contrary. But I do see the tangible value of networking, when data points for my research often emerge at the intersection between personal and professional contacts, where the latter become stronger and more solid by sharing a few personal details, especially with people who are very remote and with whom I have very infrequent contacts.
I am careful about the information I post, but – watching my kids use Facebook, MSN and the likes – I have come to realize that, does not matter how careful we are, we are going to lose control of our privacy.
For instance, I and my wife don’t like to have our pictures posted. Still, relatives, friends or even old classmates post pictures of ours and tag them with our names. My house appears on Google Maps or Streetview, any of us could be “flickr-ed” or “YouTubed” unknowingly, either because somebody shoots you a picture or because you happen to be in the background of their shot. Your very network of connections tells a lot about you, who you are, who you have been, what are your tastes, and so forth.
Surveillance or traffic cameras watch you all the time, and you know that data is used only in case of a crime or a major accident, so your privacy is likely to be respected. But what about all webcams, phone cameras, GPS-enabled camcorders, YouTube-ready devices in the hand of consumers who can use whatever they shoot the way they like? How much will information that we do not post nor do we control reveal about us, and how soon?
The emergence of location-based services like Google Latitude is pushing the boundaries even further. Just in 2000 Yahoo introduced a service called Find-A-Friend (Gartner clients can read our take on this old research note), which encountered all sorts of privacy objections. Today we have relatives and friends connected on Latitude and some of my friends publish their running paths using tracker apps on their smartphones. Of course we can always make ourselves invisible, but can we really? What would my wife say if her iPhone would tell her than I have hidden my location? What would we think if our daughter hid hers?
All this makes me think about the sentence that my colleague Daryl Plummer uses as his email signature:
Integrity is what you have when no-one is watching
The problem for us, all of us, is that somebody will be watching all the time. We’d better behave.